SONOMA (KPIX 5) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was introduced for the final time as a race car driver in Sonoma on Sunday. NASCAR fans gave a loud cheer for the 42-year-old who is retiring from full-time racing after an 18-season career.
Earnhardt’s merchandise trailer was packed with people from all over Northern California trying to snap up a #88 t-shirt – some lucky enough to stop him in the pits for an autograph.
“We have to say thank you,” said Presslyn Hernandez who came to Sonoma with a sign.
“We go way back. This will be our first race,” joked KPIX anchor Allen Martin. “I had to see history.”
While NASCAR fans might see Earnhardt Jr. fill in from time to time, they will never see him behind the wheel in Sonoma again. He never won a race on the road course and his best finish was third in 2014.
“I think we partied harder for that third place than we did for any win that year,” Earnhardt Jr. reflected. He won three times that year including the Daytona 500.
Casual NASCAR fans might have a little trouble recognizing names when the sport rolls through Sonoma in 2018. Five-time Toyota Savemart 350 champion Jeff Gordon retired in 2015, Tony Stewart called it quits last year and now Earnhardt Jr is walking away because of concerns over concussions.
Former driver and current TV analyst Darrell Waltrip watched Earnhardt blossom into the sport’s biggest star.
“I still call Dale Jr, June Bug,” said Waltrip who raced alongside his father Dale Earnhardt Sr. who died in a wreck at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
“I never knew how big Dale Earnhardt was until he got killed,” said Waltrip. “Not only was he famous in the NASCAR community, he was famous worldwide.”
The Earnhardt legacy is unmatched. Waltrip estimates 70 percent of NASCAR fans are Earnhardt fans.
“He’s always compared to his dad, which is wrong,” he said.
Although NASCAR won’t publicly admit they have a problem with fading star power, there must to be a concern. Waltrip brushed it off, saying the sport is about to experience another boom.
“People pull for winners,” he said. “In the past we haven’t had enough drivers to make a changing of the guard seem effective, but right now we have a field full of guys who can get it done.”
For the final time, victory lane eluded Earnhardt Jr.’s grasp when he had early contact with Danica Patrick, but he leaves with better feelings at the checkered flag after rallying to finish sixth – his second best result ever.
Earnhardt Jr ends his career in the Bay Area with three top-10 finishes in four years. “Let’s end on a good note. It’s like the wine out here, keeps getting better with age,” he said.